There was a time when baseball lifers would have scoffed at the notion that the Red Sox would view Jon Lester as the best option to win Game 4 of the Division Series against the Angels on Monday night. A left-handed pitcher, some theorized, could never succeed with a left-field wall beckoning right-handers from just 310 feet away.
The notion seemed to gain legitimacy based on the shortage of strong seasons by southpaws in modern Red Sox history. Until this year, just one portsider (and a portly one at that, in David Wells) had won as many as 15 games for the Sox since Bruce Hurst won 16 in 1988.
Of course, few had the opportunity to alter that history. Since Hurst left Boston following the ’88 campaign, the only left-handers to make 30 starts in a season for the Sox were Frank Viola (1992) and Wells (2005).
Against that backdrop, Lester 16-6, 3.21 ERA this year) could have been forgiven if he was intimidated by the prospect of making his home at Fenway Park. Happily for the Sox, he was not.
To the contrary, the pitcher looked at the dimensions, took stock of the close-but-high Green Monster and the cavernous expanses in right and right-center and saw an opportunity to thrive.
“I’d always heard that (it was tough for lefties), but I never really understood it. I always thought it evened out,” Lester said. “You get guys that hit balls that would be homeruns in really any other park, and they’ll be three-quarters of the way up the Wall, sometimes singles, sometimes doubles. I think it all evens out. Plus, right field is so big, right-center field is so big that I think the park plays pretty fair.”
It has been something far beyond fair for Lester this year. The 24-year-old has made his home park a venue for routine dominance.
Lester finished the year 11-1 at home with a 2.49 ERA. He was tied for the most home wins by an A.L. pitcher, and was just behind likely Cy Young winner Cliff Lee of the Indians in home ERA.
Lester lost his first home start of the year, but then went 11-0 with a 2.28 ERA over his next 16 starts at Fenway. His no-hitter against the Royals was included in that streak. He has the longest home winning streak in the majors since Johan Santana went 17-0 over 24 starts from 2005 to 2007.
Since April 29, when he took a no-decision in a 1-0 win over Roy Halladay and the Blue Jays, the Sox won every one of his final 14 home starts. It is the longest such streak by a Red Sox pitcher since at least 1956.
Many of the Red Sox starters who have had similar runs to the one that Lester has been on are expected: Luis Tiant, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling...
But the list also features southpaw Wells, who led the Sox to 10 straight wins while forging a 2.78 home ERA in 2005, and most notably Hurst, who had streaks of 10 games (1988), nine games (1984) and eight games (1986) when the Sox won every one of his starts.
Perhaps no one better understands life as a left-hander at Fenway than Hurst. He started 217 games at Fenway, easily the most by a Sox pitcher in the last 50 years. He went 56-33 with a 4.14 ERA at home and 32-40 with a 4.33 mark on the road.
Hurst, who is now a player development consultant for the Sox, insists that it is no coincidence that lefties have proven capable of making hay at Fenway.
There was, to be sure, a bit of initial shock for Hurst when he reached the majors and saw Fenway for the first time. But it did not last.
“It was a little daunting. You’d get a lot of right-handed hitters up there. There’s an adjustment period learning how to play in the ballpark,” he said in a phone interview. “My personal opinion is that the Wall gives and takes away. It’s not a bad place to pitch. There’s a lot of room to pitch in right field and right-center field. You just have to learn how to command home plate.
“But there’s an adjustment period in learning what you have to do there, and in overcoming some of the fears that might be there. I think it’s a great ballpark, a great place to pitch.”
Hurst was somewhat ahead of his time in realizing that Fenway is a haven for left-handed hitters. Though a power hitter like Jim Rice seemed to benefit from the venue, Wade Boggs offered a striking example of the fact that left-handed hitters were ideally suited for the dimensions at 4 Yawkey Way.
That being the case, Hurst realized that he could benefit enormously when opposing teams stacked their lineups with right-handers. Typically, righties would become pull-happy when staring down the Wall. That played to the pitcher’s strengths.
“I think it’s in the back of the mind for a lot of hitters that they have three or four days to hit that wall. Sometimes, to a degree, they kind of take themselves out of what they do naturally. They look for more balls to pull,” said Hurst. “For me, as a left-handed pitcher, when I had a lot of guys in the pull mode, I thought that worked to my advantage. It opened up a big portion of home plate for me to pitch to.
"I think that a guy can be late and still hit a ball off the Wall as a left-handed hitter, and there’s a lot of room to hit to right field and right-center field. I think it’s a little tougher for right-handed hitters who have to be in a pull mode all the time."
Lester has seemingly made a similar discovery.
“Right-handed hitters are going to pull the ball against me,” he said last week. “I’d like to think that’s an advantage for me.”
The fact that Lester has achieved such a realization at such a young age has impressed Hurst, who met the young Sox pitcher this year in spring training. Hurst has considered the young left-hander’s demeanor, ability and intelligence, and sees the potential for greatness.
“He’s got great, unbelievable potential on the mound,” said Hurst, part of a raft of Sox pitching talent in the 1980s that also included Roger Clemens, John Tudor, Bobby Ojeda and others. “If he stays with the Red Sox for a number of years, if he spends his career there and stays healthy, he could rewrite the (team) record books for left-handers and for a lot of pitchers. He has that kind of ability, and he’s so young. He’s still learning.”
For now, the Sox would merely be content to follow in Hurst's postseason footsteps. Hurst was 3-2 with a 2.29 ERA in the playoffs for Boston, including a 3-0, 2.13 mark in 1986, when he nearly pitched his club to a title.
Lester, who won Game 1 of the Division Series against the Angels with seven dominating innings of one-run ball, is off to a fine start in that pursuit. If he can build upon that outing in his comfortable home environment on Monday, then the Sox may soon be showering in champagne.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.